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History of Social Security Disability

The media is paying attention to Social Security Disability (SSD) and all the problems, real and imagined, that currently plague this system. SSD was developed give disability benefits to those who paid into the system while working but could no longer work because of illness or injury. Often lost in the noise about the inadequacies of SSD is its history. Discussions about SSD began during the worst years of the Depression in the 1930s, even though it was not actually implemented until 1956.

Early Reactions to Proposed Disability Insurance

Some of the early reactions to the proposed system of disability insurance sound remarkably familiar today and echo those who believe no matter what the evidence that people seeking disability benefits are not really disabled. One actuary in 1938 said, "You will have workers like those in the dust bowl area, people who have migrated to California and elsewhere, who perhaps have not worked in a year or two, who will imagine they are disabled." This person felt it would be necessary to have each applicant examined by a physician in order to weed out those wrongfully seeking benefits. Of course, this largely happens today.

Rehab vs. Compensation?

Adding disability to the Social Security Old Age Pensions was controversial to many members of Congress, especially in rural locations where there were few people and little industrial activity, the latter being a major cause of injury at the time. They were successful at stopping much work on the issue until 1949. Those opposed to the growing push for disability insurance argued that people who could no longer work should receive treatment for their disabilities rather than pensions. Others believed that people applying for disability insurance should be required to receive treatment and rehab; only after this failed, they argued, would claimants be eligible for disability compensation. However, this approach ultimately failed, and the House passed a bill that included a disability insurance program in 1949.

The Senate, however, believed that rehab, rather than receipt of cash benefits, was the way to go. It did not include any disability insurance provisions in its version of the Social Security bill. The compromise between the House and Senate was a bill to provide what was called Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled, passed in 1950. Although the old-age pensions provided by Social Security were increasingly popular, it took a series of incremental compromise laws in 1952 and 1954 before Congress agreed that SSD should become part of Social Security in 1956.

Some Early Compromises Still in Effect Today

Some of the incremental changes have had long-term consequences. In 1952, for example, a conference committee agreed that the states, rather than the federal government, should make the determination of disability. This is still true today and creates significant differences between the results of disability claims even in neighboring states. The reason, according to biographer Robert Caro, was that Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson made a deal with the Eisenhower Administration that traded passage of the bill for giving individual states the ability to hire workers for field offices.

SSD Legislation Barely Passes in 1956

Social Security Disability insurance passed in 1955 by a very slim margin. The only way proponents could receive support from Senators who supported the rehabilitation approach was to limit benefits to those over age 50 and provide nothing for the dependents of disabled workers. The other significant limitation in the act was the omission of those suffering from mental illnesses. This reflected a very real suspicion of the mentally ill, characterized by fears that allowing those with mental illness to receive coverage would encourage malingering. These beliefs are still common today. It was also said that mental illness was hard to diagnose, and most important, those with mental illness were already being cared for in state-funded institutions. Of course, when state mental institutions began discharging patients en masse in the 1960s and 1970s, the social safety net was ill-equipped to cope because there was little provision for those suffering from mental and emotional conditions.

The next instalment of this brief history will focus on Supplemental Security Income. Both parts of this blog are based on the work of Edward Berkowitz, who was chair of the history department at George Washington University and who testified in 2000 on this topic before the House Subcommittee on Social Security of the Committee on Ways and Means.

These blog posts are sponsored by Binder & Binder, American's most successful Social Security Disability advocates.

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